Tag Archives: landscape

Not out of the woods yet

How we use landscape in human metaphor bothers me. Not out of the woods yet is a case in point. As though woods are a bad and dangerous place and safety depends on exiting them. American talk of draining the swamp is another one. Wetlands are fantastic habitats and great sinks for carbon. If someone is in the wilderness, it’s not generally considered a good thing. We use ‘desert’ to stand for barren, empty and insufficient. If we call something a jungle it’s often to convey a sense of violence, and a law of might is right. Mountains are metaphors for problems and challenges.

It’s worth noting that these are all wild landscapes and evoke things not used or exploited by humans. These are the places we don’t build cities, and we tend to overlook the people who live in such areas just as we devalue the land itself. Good land, by our current habits of thinking, is land tamed to the plough or exploited for oil and other resources. Good land is working for ‘us’. Good people are inside the system, not wild things in a wild landscape. Drain the swamp and get rid of the swamp dwellers.

It’s worth being alert to this kind of language use, to avoid doing it, and to challenge those who throw wilderness words around in casually negative ways. If we want to protect our wild landscapes, we have to change how people think about them in the first place.


Knowing the Land

I love visiting new places and exploring unfamiliar landscapes. It’s very easy to get excited about the unfamiliar, and the rush of discovery and encounter. The new view, the unfolding of a landscape that surprises at every turn – there are adventures to be had.

It’s all too easy (and I say this because I’ve done it) to come in for the first time, get caught on the wave of excitement and feel that you’ve got a deep and meaningful insight into a place. It’s possible (again, I’ve done it) to psyche yourself up into an especially magical Pagan mindset so that every part of the experience is charged with symbolic resonance and a sense of the divine. It’s easier to do this with an unknown landscape than a familiar one, because the unfamiliarity makes us pay more attention and tends to leave us more open to being awed.

It’s possible (yes, yes I have…) to come away from a very superficial encounter with a new landscape feeling powerful, charged up, spoken to… or whatever else it was that you wanted to feel.

Walking in a familiar landscape won’t give you that rush. When your feet know the shape of the land, and you’ve been there season after season, and you know what’s normal, and the land going about its own things and not therefore any kind of sign meant just for you… it takes effort to go out into the familiar and really see it. Seeing the familiar as magical is much harder work, because you have all the baggage of your everyday life and self in the mix.

What comes from a slower, deeper relationship with the land is less likely to make you feel big and important, and more likely to make you feel part of what’s around you (and thankfully yes, I’ve done that too).

Writing a view of the land

You’d think, that as a lover of landscape and a fiction enthusiast, I’d appreciate nothing more than a long, descriptive sections about a place, in a novel. Often I find the reverse is true, and these passages make me unhappy. For a long time, I’d not poked into that to make sense of the mechanics, but a recent reading juxtaposition has made it all make sense.

I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal, and a great deal of work by Kevan Manwaring. I noticed over the winter that I greatly enjoy Kevan’s landscape writing, and that this is unusual for me. David Abram talks about how we treat landscape as scenery, and this helped me realise how much I struggle when descriptions of a landscape are largely, or purely visual. Often what happens when a writer describes a scene, is that you the reader are positioned as an observer. You’re stood outside, looking in, and the landscape is scenery. It’s the backdrop for the action.

Where Kevan Manwaring noticeably differs, is that his writing of landscape is immersive. He doesn’t position the reader as an outsider, but as someone actively engaged in the process of being in that landscape. The landscape is not scenery. It impacts of the experiences, thoughts, feelings and inner landscapes of characters. The human is permeated by the bigger picture. As a reader, I experience this much more intensely. I have a feeling experience of what it’s like to be in a place, even in the kinds of places I have no personal experience to bring to bear.

As a walker, I’ve long been interested in what happens to bodies in a landscape. How we experience the land varies, and depends in no small part on our expectation. The person who is waiting for the view is not immersed in the same way as the person who is excited by every turn of the path. The person who goes out to be in the landscape has a different experience from the person who is just going somewhere specific. How a person is in the landscape must therefore inform how they write about it. Too often we’re consumers and observers of the land, not participants in it. It’s a self-propagating cycle, because if we only read about scenery, we’re in a mindset that won’t help us appreciate being present, and if we’re not present, we’ll only ever notice scenery, we won’t immerse. It is possible to break out, but you have to think breaking out might be possible.

You can find Kevan Manwaring here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com

Body as landscape

The body as landscape is an obvious thing to explore in earth-orientated meditations. It’s something I’m wary of, because of the relationship between the female body and landscape in certain kinds of writing and attitude. For the colonial explorer, the exotic, unconquered landscape was something to be entered and used. Penetrated. Exploited. Abuse of the land and abuse of the feminine often go together, and using feminine language for landscapes is part of this process.

At the same time, we’ve a long history of seeing the feminine as closer to nature – not as a compliment, but to make clear that wild, intuitive womanhood is inferior to logical, reasoning masculinity. These gender assumptions harm everyone. Thought and feeling, logic and intuition are available to all of us, we should all have the right to them. It’s not a case of being one or the other.

Currently my midriff looks like the surface of the moon – pale and cratered, while my thighs look like the consequence of mediaeval ploughing. I note that the usual woman/world language doesn’t do this so much. The parallels are usually made to evoke richness and beauty, and not the damage and despoiling intended to follow. In my case it’s just the consequence of weight loss – another paradigm where the language is all about beauty, skipping over the truth of an often unsettling process of transition.

I note that the current vogue in female ‘beauty’ is deforestation. I note the parallel.

Relating to the land

There are fashions in terms of how we relate to landscape. That’s been an odd concept to wrap my head around. I’ve become a reader of landscape writing over the last few years – partly because I love landscape and want to know what other people think. Partly to learn more about what I’m seeing. Partly because I have a very low opinion of authors who write without reading in the same area of thought. It is from this reading that I’ve learned about fashions in landscape appreciation.

Of course the first thing to note is that we don’t have a complete written history of landscape appreciation. Insight into historical thinking comes from travellers and early tourists – people with money and the means and time to write letters. We have the cheerful adventurer colonialist climbing mountains no one has ever climbed before, going into unknown lands. The people who live there and knew about it all along do not count. 3rd Englishman up the Matterhorn counts, but the native assistants don’t, by this peculiar way of seeing things. Had they climbed before it was fashionable? I don’t know.

Poor people tend not to write letters about their hobbies to distant friends who keep and/or publish said letters. They don’t tend to write poetry, or memoires, or how-to books, either. There’s a glorious exception in the form of peasant poet John Clare, whose love of landscape flows through page after page of observation. Was he a lone freak? Or were other men following the plough while meditating on the curve of the soil, or making verses to honour the skylark? Or women for that matter – because most of the writing that makes up history comes from men. Teaching women to write was not always the done thing, and illiterate women leave no notes on their opinions for historians to find. There is a silence then, surrounding how most people related to landscape most of the time.

Folk tales and folk songs, legends and place names can suggest very rich cultures of landscape. Unusual landscape features tend to attract tales – how many giant stones around the country are attributed to the Devil? Barrows attract ghost stories, half remembered fragments of history become legends. The thing about the people who work the land is that they tend to stay on the land, generation after generation. Things get passed down. One of the most interesting examples of this I’ve found is in Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders, where a story of a farmer from Mobberly who takes his horse to sell in Macclesfield but has a strange run in with a wizard, turns out to be an aural mapping of a route through prehistoric settlements. Map making isn’t always about marks on paper – they can be narratives of key features in the landscape, as with the old Parish boundaries.

The history of landscape appreciation, as written, tends to be about rich people delighting in charming novelties and the picturesque and other such ideas – more of that later. These are the views of people for whom landscape is an object to enjoy, or to find lacking. The view exists to please. A person living closer to the land is bound to have a different perspective – valuing what can be used, valuing places with ancestral connections and yes, I expect finding aesthetic pleasure too, but not necessarily having a language to express it in, or anyone making notes who would take that expression seriously.

The Living Mountain

“Something moves between me and it. Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.” Nan Shepherd, in The Living Mountain.

The Living Mountain is a small book, written somewhere in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s, despite the author’s previous success with three fiction titles. It’s a meditation on the Cairngorms, a hymn of praise and love to the mountains and the life of the mountains. Beautifully written, truly poetic, it’s about what happens when you get over the simple lust for the summit and start engaging with the land. I’m not a mountain person at all, I belong to the hills and valleys, but the sense of being changed by the landscape, of becoming part of it, and becoming more yourself by walking – that all made a lot of sense to me.

I bought The Grampian Quartet (cover to the left, includes The Living Mountain) simply because Robert MacFarlane refers to it so frequently in his books. I’m fast becoming a dedicated MacFarlane fan and wanted to see why he was so in love with these books. I have not been disappointed.

The three novels – The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and A Pass in the Grampians are all short books originally published individually. They have romantic elements, but defy the habits of romance fiction. All three centre on the adventures of a young female lead coming into her own sense of self, but around those central characters, a whole host of other people gather. In many ways it’s the background people I find really draw me into these stories. There are a lot of vignettes illuminating the lives of women who are not young romantic female leads. The lonely realities of widowhood, the hard labour of working women, the misfits, the aging, the disappointed – all too real, and seldom otherwise represented. In all three stories, the landscape itself is a real presence. A sense of place permeates everything.

At the moment I’m trying to learn how to better write about the land, and my experience of landscape. I’m curious to see how other authors express their own relationship with place. Reading about Scottish mountains makes an interesting contrast with Laurie Lee and Adam Horovitz writing of the valleys of Stroud, and with Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiosis writing down the local folk tales of Gloucestershire, and Alan Pillbeam writing local landscape history. There are many ways into a landscape, and I keep looking for my own path.

More about Nan Shepherd here – http://www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk/makars/shepard/shepherd.pdf

Silent walking, and walking the talk

The most obvious way to take a meditative approach to walking, is by doing so silently – either alone or in company. Silence has a distinct power of its own, and as noise tends to be the social norm, it is well worth exploring what happens when we are silent, and silent in the company of others. I find sitting in silence to be really powerful, especially when shared, but will freely admit that silent walking does not work for me in the same way. Your millage may vary.

When we sit together silently, there’s very little external stimulus. A controlled, inside space means no unexpected things will occur. Any thoughts arising can be kept and shared later. Being outside, whether moving or stationary, we are more likely to encounter something unexpected. In interior spaces, working internally, there are only certain kinds of connection we can make.

On the first silent walk I undertook, quite a while ago, I found almost at once that it didn’t work for me. I wanted to share the things I was seeing, and in a group it’s only possible to alert people with sound unless they can all see you. I’m not sure that replacing sound with mime and arm waving is at all true to the idea of silence, it’s just swapping action for noise, while slowing down and reducing what I can express. If a buzzard flies over or I glimpse a deer in the undergrowth, there may be very little time to alert those around me. I’m good at spotting wildlife, and I love getting to share those moments of connection and joy with fellow walkers. To stay silent and let someone else miss out on beauty just feels wrong to me.

If you want to see wildlife when walking, then a quiet and attentive approach is vital. Most creatures have better hearing than we do, and a profound desire to be where we are not. I’ve walked with people who are talkers; interested in filling a walk with political debate and great thinking. Sometimes you have to stop them to get them to even see the big vistas of landscape. The person who is too caught up in their own head is not engaging with the world. The skills that make for good, indoors silent sitting – the deep inward looking of that can also be a disengagement when you take it outside. What point is there in moving in a landscape if you are not participating in the landscape and being open to other presences?

I’m also very interested in stories in the landscape. To handle this to best effect, it’s necessary to talk about them as they come up. Evidence of human history, of the ancient past in the forms of geology and geography, local folklore, and the like are all present in many locations. To comment on them and share knowledge and insight in situ is a powerful thing. It stops the landscape of a story from being just backdrop and makes it intrinsic. It is through stories that we tend to form our inner maps and make emotional connections with places, so sharing the stories of a landscape helps people bond with the place they are in.

My son and I moved area when he was 8, from the place he’d grown up to the place I’d grown up. At first he was disorientated. He and I had walked together a lot and got to know the place we’d left, but this new place made no sense to him. In the first few weeks, we walked a lot, and I storied him into that landscape until places became identifiable, and the history of the place, and the family history of the place became ingrained in him, and he settled. Conversely, when I’d moved away from this area for the Midlands, my lack of stories to go with the landscape left me feeling adrift for many years, and collecting stories of place took a long time.

For me, the critical thing when walking is to avoid banality and small talk. Words for the sake of making a noise cut us off from what’s around us. If I’m alone I would never wear headphones to cut me off from my surroundings, either. If the time spent walking is used as time for a brain workout, a debate, an argument, a showing off of knowledge then this too cuts us off from the landscape. The default should always be silence, but with spaciousness so that when something important comes up, there’s room for sharing. That might be observations of what’s around us, it might be questions the landscape inspires, or stories we associate with a place. Given time and space, walking can cause deeper personal revelations to float to the surface sometimes, too, and those are also worth airing and sharing. If we’re too absolute about silence, we can lose the richness of experience. Human communication is part of being real, present and alive, when we get it right.

Walking Calendar – Boxing Day

Boxing Day lends itself to a walk – the post-Christmas over-eating guilt encourages people to get out. Amongst the set of people I was at school with, there’s a long standing tradition of walking over the hills from Dursley to Waterly Bottoms (we have fantastic place names round here) to a pub, and then coming back. It’s a steep walk, and not the easiest in the dark. I’ve done it a couple of times, and while I like the theory, I struggle with the practice. It also doesn’t help that not living in Dursley I need to get home after the return from the pub, sans car.

This year I thought it would be fun to start my own Boxing Day walk, for which I managed to lure out a few intrepid souls. While I like the idea of committing to a walk on this day, I have no sense of a fixed route I want to adopt – that may settle in time, or it may not.

The inspiration for the walk came from Gloucestershire Ghost Tales (History press, Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiosis) – the mention of a place called ‘Woeful Dane’s Bottom’ and reference to a standing stone that I didn’t previously know about. I spent a while cross-referencing the story with the local ordinance survey map, but then failed to take the map with me on the day, which had consequences.

We walked from Stroud to Nailsworth, and thence to Avening, where there was a detour to the graveyard. My great uncle – Wilfred Hunking – and his wife Anne are buried there. They are just on the graveyard side of the wall, and on the other side is a stile, and it was at that stile that they kissed for the first time on the night that they met at a local dance. They were a case of love at first sight. Romantic to the end. But also cantankerous – it was a romance that looked a lot like fighting and point scoring from the outside.

From Avening, we walked up the edge of Gattcombe Park, an exercise in trying to keep my inner proletariat from rioting. A vast tract of beautiful landscape and woodland largely inaccessible because it’s owned by a royal. There is now a gate in the field that allows people to access the barrow there – a really unusual barrow with a stone on the top, called The Tingle Stone. I’ve heard stories about Pagans trespassing in that field and finding themselves in conversation with armed police. And so we trespassed, but an unlocked gate is an open invitation, and I think it immoral that anyone is allowed to prohibit access to such places as these. The history of land ownership in the UK has a lot to do with conquest, which can equally be described as violent theft.

We found the long stone, but, without the map, were on the wrong road and the wrong side of the field, so we missed the second barrow, and we did not get to Woeful Dane’s Bottom. That will be for another day.

As is so often the way of it, this walk suggested the scope for another, and one that might be especially suited to early spring.

New Year, New Books

I’ve had a week off, and in that time, I’ve been reading. I thought I’d set the tone for 2016 by kicking off with reviews of the books I’ve read over the last week.

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch. A book exploring myths, legends and folk practice from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, interspersed with ways to do some of the things described. Charming, accessible and very readable, it’s not an academic text but the author seems well read. While I’m no expert on Christmas traditions, where there were overlaps with things I know about, I saw nothing to take issue with. I very much enjoyed the author’s willingness to explore all the gruesome and creepy aspects of the season. If only regular Christmas had more trolls in it, I’d probably find the whole thing far more palatable!




The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman. A prequel to the Sandman series, I imagine it would make little sense to a reader who hadn’t already read the other titles. It’s beautifully put together, the art really shows what can be done with a graphic novel when the artist, letterer and colourist have time to lavish care and attention on every page rather than what the usual factory approach delivers. In terms of story, it is odd, clever, sometimes funny, poignant, uncomfortable – in short all I have come to expect from Neil Gaiman. If you like what he does, you will like this one too.




The Voice that Thunders – Alan Garner. A collection of essays exploring the process of writing, the writing industry, landscape, history, family, the relationship between books and classrooms, mental health issues, language, dialect… all laced through with stories of people and places. A fascinating read and exactly what I needed at this point in time. If you’re fascinated with Alan Garner and his work, of if any of the above themes are obsessions of yours, then I heartily recommend it.


Journeys to mythical places

Over the last few days, I have entered the Legendary Middle Studio, and The Potionary. As with all places with mythic aspects, knowing the myths is critically important for appreciating the location. Some places are so striking that they suggest, or attract myths anyway, while others become important through association with events. I’m a big fan of knowing how stories connect with landscape, both old stories, and new ones. However, the reasons for these two locations being important to me are not as famous as they deserve to be.

The Legendary Middle Studio belongs to BBC Radio Shropshire, and every Sunday evening, Genevieve Tudor broadcasts a fabulous two hour folk show from this building. You can listen live, or after the event, online if you are further afield. Most weeks there are live performances, and these take place in the Legendary Middle Studio.

I’ve known Genevieve pretty much my whole life. Nearly five years ago, Tom, the lad and I moved onto a narrow boat. At night, in the darkness of winter it can be a bit lonely out on the canal, and all we had for contact with the rest of humanity was a small wind-up radio. We discovered we could pick up the folk program via BBC Hereford and Worcester, and so it became something of a lifeline. I’d gone from running a weekly club, to having no live folk in my life at all, so it also provided an important sense of connection. For the two years we’ve been in a flat, we’ve continued listening. Seeing the place where it all happens was a really interesting experience.

The Potionary is also in Shropshire, at a much more secret location. It is the space where the Matlock the Hare books and art have been created. I’ve been a big fan of Matlock the Hare for some time, and of the lovely creative duo behind it, so when they said ‘do you want to see The Potionary?’ I of course squealed and said yes. And it was splendid.

Everything happens in a place. We don’t tell history in terms of place location, unless you happen to be at a tourist spot. Myths and folk tales can go either way – some are very specific ‘There was once a farmer from Mobberly way’ and some have an ‘everyman’ quality that means no matter where you tell them, it all occurred just down the road from here and involved the friend of a guy in the pub who told the story teller the tale in the first place.

I think that when we lose the connection between narrative and place, we lose the sense of the place being important. Over the last few days I also saw the ruins of a number of industrial buildings. Some had history boards to explain them, some did not. If it’s just a tumble down old place, it can be left to rot. If we know it was the first, or the biggest, or the most important at one time, if we know it was the centre of working life in a place, or something else like that, the past connects to the living landscape and it becomes easier to feel a sense of connection and significance. Not only does this change a person’s perspective on a landscape, it also shifts how settled that person feels in a place. How real, or unreal the stories are, and no matter how old, or how recent, having stories of place makes a lot of odds.